In 326 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya was just a teenager when Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded India. Facing stiff resistance all through what is now Pakistan, and hampered by the high Hindu-Kush Mountains, Alexander’s army lost its will to conquer India at the Battle of Jhelum (or Hydaspes River).
Although the Macedonians made it through the Khyber Pass and defeated Raja Puru (King Poros) near modern-day Bhera, Pakistan, the fighting was almost too much for Alexander’s troops. Worst of all, Raja Puru’s army included 30 war elephants, who spooked the Macedonian cavalry’s horses (and probably the men, as well). When the victorious Macedonians heard that their next target - the Nanda Empire - could muster 6,000 war elephants, the soldiers revolted. Alexander the Great would not conquer the far side of the Ganges.
Although the world’s greatest tactician could not convince his troops to take on the Nanda Empire, five years after Alexander turned away, a 20-year-old Chandragupta Maurya would accomplish that feat, and go on to unite almost all of what is now India. The young Indian emperor would also take on Alexander’s successors - and win.
Chandragupta Maurya’s Birth and Ancestry:
Chandragupta Maurya was born sometime around 340 BCE, reportedly in Patna, now in the Bihar state of India. Given the vast span of time since his birth, it is unsurprising that scholars are uncertain of many details. For example, some texts claim that both of Chandragupta’s parents were of the Kshatriya (warrior/prince) caste, while others state that his father was a king but his mother was a maid from the lowly Shudra (servant) caste.
It seems likely that his father was Prince Sarvarthasiddhi of the Nanda Kingdom. Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka the Great, later claimed a blood relationship to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, but this claim is unsubstantiated.
We know almost nothing about Chandragupta Maurya’s childhood and youth before he took on the Nanda Empire. This supports the hypothesis that he was of humble origin, since nobody recorded anything about him until he founded the Mauryan Empire.
Overthrow of the Nanda:
From an early age, Chandragupta was brave and charismatic - a born leader. The young man came to the attention of a famous Brahmin scholar, Chanakya, who bore a grudge against the Nanda. Chanakya began to groom Chandragupta to conquer and rule in the place of the Nanda Emperor; he helped the young man to raise an army, and taught him tactics through different Hindu sutras.
Chandragupta allied himself to the king of a mountain kingdom, perhaps the same Puru who had been defeated but spared by Alexander, and set out to conquer the Nanda. Initially, the upstart’s army was rebuffed, but after a long series of battles Chandragupta’s forces laid siege to the Nanda capital at Pataliputra. In 321 BCE, the capital fell, and 20-year-old Chandragupta Maurya started his own dynasty - the Mauryan Empire.
The Mauryan Empire:
Chandragupta’s new empire, at the time of its founding, stretched from what is now Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar (Burma) in the west, and from Jammu/Kashmir in the north to the Deccan Plateau in the south. Chanakya served as the equivalent of a “prime minister” in the fledgling government.
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his generals divided up his empire into satrapies, so that each of them would have a territory to rule. By about 316, Chandragupta Maurya was able to defeat and incorporate all of the satraps in the mountains of Central Asia, extending his empire to the edge of what is now Iran, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Some sources allege that Chandragupta Maurya may have arranged for the assassination of two of the Macedonian satraps: Philip son of Machatas, and Nicanor of Parthia. If so, it was a very precocious act even for Chandragupta - Philip was assassinated in 326 BCE, when the future ruler of the Mauryan Empire was still an anonymous teenager.
Push into Seleucid Persia:
In 305 BCE, Chandragupta decided to expand his empire into eastern Persia. At the time, Persia was ruled by Seleucus I Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Empire, and a former general under Alexander. Chandragupta seized a large area in eastern Persia. In the peace treaty that ended this war, Chandragupta got control of that land as well as the hand of one of Seleucus’s daughters in marriage. In exchange, Seleucus got 500 war elephants - which he put to good use at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE.
Conquering Southern India:
With as much territory as he could comfortably rule to the north and west, Chandragupta Maurya next turned his attention south. With an army of 400,000, according to Strabo, or 600,000, if you believe Pliny the Elder, Chandragupta conquered all of the Indian subcontinent except for Kalinga (now Orissa) on the east coast, and the Tamil kingdom at the farthest southern tip of the land-mass.
By the end of his reign, Chandragupta Maurya had unified almost all of the Indian subcontinent under his rule. His grandson, Ashoka, would go on to add Kalinga and the Tamils to the empire, as well.
The only one of Chandragupta’s queens or consorts for whom we have a name is Durdhara, the mother of his first son, Bindusara. However, it is likely that Chandragupta had many more consorts.
According to legend, Prime Minister Chanakya was concerned that Chandragupta might be poisoned by his enemies, so started introducing small amounts of poison into the emperor’s food in order to build up a tolerance. Chandragupta was unaware of this plan, and shared some of his food with his wife Durdhara when she was very pregnant with their first son. Durdhara died, but Chanakya rushed in and performed an emergency operation to remove the full-term baby. The infant Bindusara survived, but a bit of his mother’s poisoned blood touched his forehead, leaving a blue bindu; spot that inspired his name.
Unfortunately, we do not know about any of Chandragupta’s other wives or children. Bindusara is likely still remembered more because of his son than for his own reign. He was the father of one of India’s greatest monarchs ever - Ashoka the Great.
Chandragupta’s Conversion to Jainism and Death:
When he was in his fifties, Chandragupta became fascinated with Jainism, an extremely ascetic belief system. His guru was the Jain saint Bhadrabahu.
In 298 BCE, the emperor renounced his rule, handing over power to his son Bindusara. Chandragupta traveled south to a cave at Shravanabelogola, now in Karntaka. There, the founder of the Mauryan Empire meditated without eating or drinking for five weeks, until he died of starvation. This practice is called sallekhana or santhara.
Chandragupta Maurya's Legacy:
The dynasty that Chandragupta founded would rule over India and the south of Central Asia until 185 BCE. His grandson Ashoka would follow in Chandragupta’s footsteps in several ways - conquering territory as a young man, but then becoming devoutly religious as he aged. In fact, Ashoka's reign in India may be the purest expression of Buddhism in any government in history.
Today, Chandragupta is remembered as the unifier of India - like Qin Shihuangdi in China, but far less blood-thirsty. Despite the paucity of records on his life, Chandragupta’s life story has inspired movies such as the 1958 “Samrat Chandragupt” novels, and even a 2011 Hindi-language TV series.
Mookerji, Radhakumud. Chandragupta Maurya and His Times, New Delhi: Motalil Banarsidass Publishers, 1966.
Pletcher, Kenneth. The History of India, New York: Rosen, 2010.